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'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' review: 'Dawn' is no second banana

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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For as much as we moan and groan about Hollywood and their love of sequels, reboots and seemingly endless attempts to do anything but come up with original ideas, sometimes they get it right. They successfully rebooted the “Planet of the Apes” franchise back in 2011 and now with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” they’ve proven they can still make a sequel that is smart, layered and entertaining.

Matt Reeves takes over directing duties from “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” helmer Rupert Wyatt, but more importantly the master of performance capture Andy Serkis returns to his role of Caesar. Serkis takes top billing this time around as the Apes have become both the emotional focal point and drivers of the plot, delegating the human character to small subplots that ring kind of hollow.

The story picks up ten years after “Rise” with Caesar and his fellow apes having formed their own society in the Red Woods of San Francisco. Their peace is threatened when humans from a colony of survivors of the simian flu that wiped out the majority of the population make their way into the woods. Desperate to restore some of their power, a human name Malcolm (Jason Clarke) attempts to create a truce with Caesar, but old prejudices remain on both sides.

At the heart of many of the previous “Planet of the Apes” films has been the idea of prejudice, but what “Dawn” does that is interesting is truly recognize the good and evil on both sides of the lines. Caesar and Malcolm represent the good – the hope that these two civilizations can work together and live in peace – while another ape, Koba (Toby Kebbell), and Gary Oldman’s character represent the evil, wanting nothing more than the others destruction.

That’s a little more than what you get from your typical summer blockbuster, but the film also delivers on the more traditional promises of a popcorn flick with an exciting third act. Reeves successfully balanced the whole film though with a contemplative first half that addresses the characters and where they stand and then finally ignites the powder keg while still managing to keep the heart of the dilemma very much in play. No offense to Wyatt, but Reeves definitely created a more effective and unique world for “Dawn.”

But once again, none of this happens without the work of Andy Serkis and WETA. WETA Digital continues to impress with each new outing as their ability to produce astounding characters and effects only grows. Serkis, and the other actors portraying apes, are still at the heart of these characters though. Though they now have the ability to talk, so much is still conveyed non-verbally and through their general presence. Serkis turns in another fantastic performance as Caesar, but a promising sign for the craft and the franchise is that he doesn’t give the best performance. That honor belongs to Kebbell and his passionate and villainous performance as Koba.

The ape characters are so interesting and well acted that it makes their human counterparts pretty boring in comparison. That’s not to say that Clarke, Oldman and others are bad in the movie, but they simply cannot compete with what is going on with the apes in the story, no matter what kind of sad emotional background they give them. Their presence forces the film to focus on them too much, and when they do it offers little beyond moving the far less interesting sub plot forward.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” proves, in most areas at least, that sometimes bigger is better. Bigger set pieces, more action, and most importantly a bigger role for the ape characters lead “Dawn” to exceed its predecessor in nearly every facet. To top it all off, they were able to have their cake and eat it too, as they also crafted a compelling emotional arc for the film that exceeds “Rise.” Take notes Hollywood, this is how you make a summer blockbuster worth watching, and they did it with talking apes.

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